Posts Tagged ‘Ozment’s House of Twilight’

Flash Fiction: An Interview with Nicholas Ozment

August 21, 2009

The short story was once famously defined as fiction that could be read in a single sitting. When we look back today at the stories that definition was meant to describe — the “short story” of a century or two ago — we notice at once that the world has changed since then. Many a supernatural tale by Hawthorne, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Edith Wharton, Lovecraft — even Poe, the “Father of the Short Story” — seems anything but short by current standards.

I wonder what the readers and writers of those classic stories would have made of the shortest stories on the market today. Would they have been shocked, perhaps even a little offended, like many in the crowd hearing the Gettysburg Address? President Lincoln’s speech — arguably the most powerful and enduring in our country’s history — seemed on the day of its delivery to be hardly a speech at all. “He can’t be finished speaking already!” some thought.

So we might wonder about these short, short stories that have become such a large part of the literary landscape in the 21st century. Microfiction . . . flash fiction. Do such a few words really constitute a story? Not that we should carry the Gettysburg analogy too far; but the writing principle exemplified in Mr. Lincoln’s words is the same ideal that flash fictionists strive for. They seek to arrange a very few purposeful words to get a job done . . . a “job” that will continue to resonate with readers for a long time after the story is told.

Since this type of writing is most definitely not my area of expertise, I thought this would be an excellent time to let you hear a voice other than mine. For this posting, we have a guest author!

Nicholas Ozment is a long-time friend. I met him indirectly through Dragonfly. A particular reviewer, though overall quite positive, had taken my book to task for its Christian elements. In the letters section of the well-known genre magazine in which the review had appeared, I noticed a response defending Dragonfly on this issue by the co-editors of a magazine called Mooreeffoc — one Nicholas Ozment and one G. N. Dybing. I quickly tracked down an address for them, wrote to thank them, and checked out their magazine; and we quickly discovered that all three of us were very much on the same wavelength regarding what delighted us in the world of speculative fiction. We were friends for several years before we met face-to-face. (I collected every issue of Mooreeffoc [and yes, even read it, not just collected!], which was the sort of magazine I’d always wished had existed — and which, incidentally, received an official mention in Writer’s Digest as one of the most promising new small-press magazines. I commend to you Ozment’s House of Twilight, the current successor of Mooreeffoc, which picked up where the former magazine left off.)

Anyway, Nick is our featured guest this week, and he has a lot of insights to offer, whether microfiction is your thing or not. I’ll start by giving you a partial list of his qualifications and literary accomplishments — a list that is anything but “micro” — and then the interview follows. I’m very grateful to Nick for agreeing to do this interview, and for his well-considered responses.

First, here’s his weblog: Ozmentality, at http://ozment.livejournal.com. (It includes his complete bibliography, links to on-line publications, and regular updates.)

 Nick recently debuted as a featured cover author in the May issue (#3) of Arkham Tales (www.arkhamtales.com) with his chilling story “The House on Waterloo Lane.”

 He is the co-editor of Every Day Poets (www.everydaypoets.com), which provides readers with a new poem every single day.

 And he is a regular contributor of flash fiction to Every Day Fiction (www.everydayfiction.com). (Like its companion site, this one will fix you up with a new story every day, short enough to read on your lunch break, or over your morning coffee, or while you’re supposed to be stirring the soup, or whenever.)

 Nick’s humorous fantasy novel, Knight Terrors: The (Mis)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon, is even now being serialized on-line at http://knighterrors.blogspot.com. This nifty tome is slated to be published as a book, with illustrations — probably early in 2010 — by Cyberwizard Productions. (I suggested the title! MY idea! — but Nick claims he’d already come up with the “Knight Terrors” part himself.)

 In February 2009, one story from that book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” finished in the top ten in the 2008 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll for the category fantasy short story.

 Nick’s story “Cat Got Your Tongue, Evil Got Your Eye” placed third in the 2008 SFReader Fiction contest (www.sfreader.com).

 His story “The Wrong Blue” placed second in the 2005 Dylan Days Creative Writing Contest, fiction—general division. (This is one of my favorites of his stories.)

 He received an Honorable Mention in the eighteenth annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, for “The Prairie Whales Are All Extinct,” published in Mythic Delirium #11.

This one particularly relates to our interview: his flash piece “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” was published on Every Day Fiction, July 21, 2008. To date, it has been the most-read EDF story. It was anthologized in Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 (November 2008). As of July 30, 2009 it had 51,516 hits on EDF.

 Nick’s stories have been widely published on-line, anthologized, and recorded for podcasts. He’s had work in Weird Tales. He has published academic essays on Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Frank Belknap Long, he’s a reviewer of books and movies — and somehow in all that, he finds time to teach a full load of university courses — and to be a family man (most recently a proud father).

So — are we all agreed he knows some things about writing in today’s world? Without further adieu, here’s the ‘view — I’m FSD and he’s OZ.

FSD: One genre in which you’ve had great success is flash fiction. Would you briefly define flash fiction for our readers?

 OZ: I really couldn’t define it better than Camille Gooderham Campbell does in her introduction to The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 anthology, so if you don’t mind my quoting from her:

“Despite its appeal as a quick read, flash fiction is not simplistic. Quite the opposite; it can and should be one of the most demanding literary forms, with a need for perfectly crafted prose, a complete story arc in a tight space, and an immediately engaging hook. [. . .] The defining characteristic of flash, beyond the number of words, is that it has a plot structure, with an introductory situation, rising action or tension, a climax, and a resolution. Because of the word-count restraint, some parts of the structure are often implied, hinted at, or sketched in, but the reader should be able to make a guess at the whole story arc.”

FSD: Do you regard a flash story to be a conventional short story condensed to a microcosm, or is flash an entirely different form?

OZ: Following Campbell’s definition, I’d lean toward the former: a conventional short story condensed to a microcosm. If it does not contain (or at least imply) each element of the traditional narrative arc—beginning, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution—then it becomes something else: a vignette or a prose poem or a character sketch.

FSD: Can you describe the process you go through from conception to the finished flash piece?

OZ: When I’m hit with an idea that turns into a flash, I usually think right away “This could probably be expressed in a very short form.” So I’m aware that what I’m writing is potentially a flash piece; however, I still write the story out as I see it unfolding—all the details, all the dialogue. That first draft almost always comes in over the 1,000-word maximum. And sometimes I discover that to tell the story right, it really needs more space, in which case I expand on it and it just becomes a short story.

But if I’m only off the mark  by 200 words or so, then I go through and start paring. Just as with poetry, I look for extraneous words—descriptions or bits of dialogue that don’t really add much to the essential story—and I take the scalpel to them. What can be left unsaid? What can the reader infer? Most adverbs and adjectives die at this stage, too. Then, when I’m down to, say, 1,002 words and I really don’t see how the piece could sacrifice another word, I get really nitpicky: Is there an article or a conjunction that won’t really be missed? Slice out a “the” here and an “and” there, and it’s there. That’s why some of my flash fiction comes in at 1,000 words exactly.

There are times, though, when I set out to trim 200 words and, in the trimming, find that more can go—here is a whole paragraph that isn’t really necessary—and then the piece (about which I was originally thinking “How could I possibly cut 1/6 of this and still retain its impact?”) ends up being 970 words. I like getting that wiggle room at the end—because then I can go back in and restore an adjective or two that it really pained me to lose.

FSD: What makes an outstanding flash story? When you’ve really gotten a piece right, what is it that you notice or recognize about the story?

OZ: It packs an emotional punch without recourse to the build-up one has in a longer story. That is why it is essential that your reader identify with the character(s) immediately: you don’t have time to draw the reader in gradually, filling in back-story. You’re throwing them into the action with strangers and asking them to empathize with these people. It’s a tough challenge: like convincing them to get married on a first date.

FSD: Do you know anything about the origins of flash fiction? Is it primarily a product of the Internet, which typically requires everything to be bite-sized and easy to take in at a glance . . . or does it have more of a relationship to, say, Asian poetic forms such as the haiku . . . or does it come from somewhere else?

OZ: The “microfiction” movement predates the Internet. I’ve seen collections from the 80s, but I’m not terribly knowledgeable about its roots before that. Hemingway is often credited with having written the shortest story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and one could point to works before that which would meet the criteria of flash. The Internet has certainly taken what was really a novelty subgenre and put it on the map, though. There are now dozens of web-magazines dedicated solely to flash fiction, and they are some of the more popular fiction sites on the Net. Probably for the reasons you articulated: a person on Digg or Stumble can click on the link to “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” and read it in a couple minutes. Immediate gratification.

FSD: What mistakes are commonly made by beginning writers of flash? Are there gimmicks or story patterns that flash editors are seeing way too much of?

OZ: The first, which has been alluded to before, is not really telling a story: what you’ve written does not have a narrative arc. It’s an amusing character sketch, or an interesting vignette, but it’s a snapshot, without the complicating action or change that a true story requires. Then it’s not flash.

The second is overreliance on the Twilight Zone-type twist ending. There is  a lot of that in flash, including some of the very best, but if the readers have not come on board with the characters, the most clever twist will lack impact. If the twist is amusing but there is no investment in the characters, then what you’ve written is really just a dressed-up joke. If the twist is frightening or tragic but the reader has no involvement with the characters, then the reader’s response to their fate is “Who cares?”

FSD: In many ways you are the present-day counterpart of, say, Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison — the writers who turned out story after story and made their living at it during the pulp era. To what degree is the business different now? How is the life of a short-fiction writer different than it was even a generation ago?

OZ: Well, the biggest difference now is that a Bradbury or Ellison could not make a living doing what they did. No one—not even a Stephen King—can pay the bills on short fiction. That’s why they’ve all gone to writing novels. I think the present-day counterparts to the pulp writers may be freelance television scriptwriters. If one can break in, then one can just squeeze out a living at it (twenty or thirty grand a year, I’ve heard). I’ve never tried. I’ve gone the other time-honored and respectable route of writers whose avocation is not profitable enough to be their vocation: I teach. (And I love teaching. Even if I could make a living writing full-time, I’d probably still teach.)

FSD: Your on-line story “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” had 52,000 hits at the latest count. That’s an amazing number by anyone’s estimation. How do you account for the story’s runaway success? What is it that resonates with so many readers?

OZ: From what I understand, Star Wars and action-figure-collectibles communities embraced the story. A few people “Stumbled” or “Digged” it, gave it a thumbs up on the social network sites; it rose in the rankings on those sites so more people saw it and passed the link around. Eventually it “went viral,” to use the Net slang for something taking off and being seen by tens of thousands of people. Usually this happens with video clips from sites like Youtube, but here’s proof it can happen with fiction.

As to what resonates with those readers, I think it’s just nostalgia, pure and simple. Nostalgia for our childhood, forgetting about cares-of-life for a while and just playing. That’s something that really resonates in our overworked, overstressed, profit-driven society.

FSD: Is there anything you’d like to say about EDF, EDP, or anything else?

OZ: Welcome to the wave of the future. To quote Dylan, “The times they are a-changin’.”

FSD: Nick, thank you very much!

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Under the Tower of Rejection: A Story’s Odyssey

August 16, 2009

We hear it all the time from writers, writing teachers, and the trade magazines: if you’re going to submit your stories or book manuscript for publication, learn to handle rejection. Develop a thick skin. Learn to discriminate among rejection letters, because there are bad ones, so-so ones, and very good ones. Glean what you can from them, and live to submit another day.

I thought it might be interesting to chronicle the journey of what I believe has been my most-rejected short story. This odyssey took place mostly in the time before everyone was using e-mail, and before most editors wanted anything to do with electronic submissions. So this story made its trips back and forth, back and forth across the Pacific in battered manila envelopes; it came back coffee-stained, just like in the stereotypes, to be printed out and sent forth anew. May this account of its rocky road to publication serve as encouragement to any who labor in the trenches, who plod onward because writing is what they do . . . and especially to those who wonder “Do I have what it takes? Will my writing ever see the light of day?” To all who love the arranging of words on paper — to all who would sell your words that others may read them and have an experience and see in their heads the pictures you see — I say: Persevere! Don’t give up. We continue to learn, and the road we’re on leads somewhere. The bottom line of my entire experience so far is this: Things happen when they’re supposed to, in the order they’re supposed to. Be the best you can be. Keep loving stories, keep loving people and life, and keep writing.

This is just about the season when, in high school, we would start marching band practice. In the sweltering heat of the middle of August, we would gather on the football field to learn the new half-time show. In that era, they were written for us — the music and the marching choreography — by a well-known professor / marching band leader from a university. As the football team grunted and crashed into each other in the distance, we band members would practice keeping our intervals measured as our lines swung and crisscrossed. With sweat stinging our eyes, we went through the bars of the Spanish Opener or Spirit of the Bull eighty times, ninety times, first just learning the movement on the field, then doing it with horns in our hands, then doing it as we played.

It’s quite a different thing to play on a marching field or in a parade than it is to play in the band room or in a concert hall. I suppose it’s something like the difference pilots feel between landing at an airport and landing on an aircraft carrier on the high sea. When you’re marching, your feet hit the ground, bam, bam, bam. The mouthpiece is going all over the place, mashing your lips, chipping your teeth. And none of that can affect your sound — if you’re playing a long, unbroken note, it has to be long and unbroken. If you’re a trombonist, you have to watch that you’re not whacking woodwind players in the back of the head with your slide. You have to keep your horn up parallel to the ground. You have to see the notes printed on that little flapping paper clipped just beyond your mouthpiece as you watch other moving people from the corners of your eyes — and oh, yeah, you’re supposed to watch the conductor, too. You’re burning up during the August practices, but you’re freezing during first-period band class on mornings in October and November, and at the late-season football games, your toes are nearing frostbite in those hard black shoes. You have to play loud enough so that the people in the stands hear more than drums. (I think that’s why there’s such a high burnout rate among marching-band clarinetists.)

Anyway, we had the best band teacher in the world, whose name was Jim Smith. That was really his name; it’s not an alias. In his marching band uniform, he looked exactly — exactly — like the band leader in the Funky Winkerbean comic strip (Harry Dingle?). Anyway — here comes the point of my story — we’d be slogging through this routine for about the third day, tired and irritated and wishing it were the beginning of summer instead of the end. And then Mr. Smith would order us to do the routine better each time. Don’t just mindlessly go through the motions the same way again and again. Every time you do it, he’d say, try to improve something. Concentrate. Or, as he would famously yell through his megaphone: “Find it! Find it!”

Mr. Smith’s patience and dedication, his excellence and attention to detail are still with me as I walk the writerly path. Don’t give up. Don’t go through wooden motions. Do it better each time. If a section is rough, take it home and practice it. If a section in your story is rough, spend the time — work the problem out. Write what you mean. Be conscious of what you’re putting on the page. Find it!

I also have to say this about Mr. Smith: he was one of a very few of my teachers who came to my local book-signing when Dragonfly was first released. He is a prime example of how the very best teachers teach much more than the particular discipline of their profession. They teach with their whole lives.

ANYWAY (I may have to pay the Pun Fund there for a very long, tangential story, but Mr. Smith is more than worth it. . . .) — here’s the journey of my most-rejected short story, “Under the Tower of Valk.” I’ll keep the editors anonymous so that I can quote from them.

1. First Submission: January 21, 2000

No response. On May 19, 2000, I sent a follow-up query.

No response. I waited until June 27, 2000 — well beyond the magazine’s posted response time, and then sent a last-resort follow-up by e-mail (a radical step with that magazine in those days — the editors were still pretty touchy about having their e-space invaded).

June 30, 2000: E-mail response from the editor: “O Frederic: No record at this end of either your manuscript or your follow-up inquiry. To save further time, and to avoid the risk of putting still more paper into the placid waters of the Pacific, I suggest the following: convert your story into a pure text file. Mark the beginning of any italics/underlining with ** and the end of any italics/underlining with *  Indent each paragraph five spaces; and Just In Case, put a blank line after each paragraph. Remind me, at the top of the e-mail, that I asked you to do this. Then (preferably) paste the text into the body of an e-mail to me — or if that doesn’t work, attach it to an e-mail to me. I look forward to your story.”

I did as I was told and re-submitted the story his way.

No response. On August 9, 2000, I sent a follow-up query by e-mail.

In response that same day, they rejected the story and sent me a copy of their guidelines (which, of course, I’d had from the beginning). The editors felt the horror was effective, but that too little happened on stage, and the story had no supernatural element. They also mentioned that they were very heavily stocked and buying very little.

2. Second Submission: August 11, 2000

There’s a missing reply in my records, but the editor expressed interest and asked for a revision. I revised accordingly (overall tightening and making the ambiguous ending more clear) and re-submitted the story on October 30, 2000.

On November 29, 2000, the editor rejected the story: “Dear Mr. Durbin: I can’t remember if I got back to you about “Under the Tower of Valk,” which most likely means I didn’t. (Sorry about that — my workload is formidable right now.) Anyway, I think the new version is definitely less opaque at the end, but I’ve got to pass on it simply because the story doesn’t need to be fantasy. It could just as well be an historical story. [Yes, Chris, he wrote “an historical story.” Phooey!] (In fact, this explains in part my confusion over the ending in the previous draft — I was looking for a fantastic twist or aspect to the conclusion.) I do think it’s a good story, I just can’t use it in _____. You might try it out with ____ _____ at _____ Magazine or with ____ _____ at _____; I think it might fit into one of those magazines better than it does in _____. Meantime, I appreciate the revisions you made at my request and I’m sorry they ultimately didn’t pay off here. I hope I’ll see more from you soon.”

3. Third Submission: December 12, 2000 (I mentioned, of course, that I was submitting the story on the advice of the previous editor.)

No response. I sent a follow-up query by e-mail on April 27, 2001. (It was becoming more acceptable by then to do so.)

In May 2001, I heard that the editor’s significant other had passed away. I sent a letter of condolence. Never heard from the editor again.

4. Fourth Submission: June 4, 2001 (Submitted to the second editor recommended by Editor #2.)

On June 15, 2001, the editor sent me a nice e-mail saying he’d resigned as the editor of that magazine because the publisher could no longer pay him. He told me how to submit it to the right person, but he advised me that the publisher was really not buying now — was in deep financial trouble, etc.

5. Fifth Submission: June 21, 2001

Handwritten rejection on August 29, 2001, scrawled on the back of the bottom third ripped from my cover letter: “Thank you  for submitting your story UNDER THE TOWER OF VALK to ____. Apologies for the delay in responding. It is not for us, I’m afraid. A striking line at the end but a [illegible word] middle passage that failed to convince: not sure the prisoner ever thought like that. Sorry.”

6. Sixth Submission: October 1, 2001

Rejection on January 21, 2002: Form rejection letter with two boxes checked: “We have considered your story, but find that it is not suitable for our publication.” — and then a long one about how they received a number of fairly good stories each month that just didn’t do enough original things, and this was one of those. But there was also a handwritten scrawl (which is generally a good thing to get): “This is more of a vignette, with very little to call it ‘SF’. We’re not sure why you have a flashback positioned between the two ‘present’ scenes. Doesn’t really suit us.”

At this point, it would have made very good sense to retire the story or else overhaul it in a major way. But I was keeping myself busy with other things, and I just wanted to keep trying with this one, which I thought was original and well-done. (I wrote “Under the Tower of Valk” at the same general time as “The Place of Roots.” I thought “Valk” was the stronger story, but “Roots” was snapped up by the first place I sent it — Fantasy & Science Fiction — and you can see what happened with “Valk”!)

7. Seventh Submission: February 4, 2002

Nice personal, handwritten rejection on March 5, 2002: “Dear Frederic, Nicely written piece that nearly makes it for us. In the end, I wasn’t completely won over by the ending. I’ll pass on it, but please do try us again soon.”

8. Eighth Submission: March 14, 2002

No response. Followed up by e-mail, and was asked to re-submit, which I did on July 25, 2002. It was rejected with a form letter in August 2002.

9. Ninth Submission: September 25, 2002

Very nice rejection letter on July 15, 2003: In part — “While we all found the writing excellent and the psychological study a compelling one, we don’t feel it’s suited for ____’s younger readers. In fact, we urge you to send this to an adult publication; it’s excellent writing, but it’s just not suited for our publication.” [Take an important lesson from that: I was getting desperate here, but don’t. If you think the story is probably wrong for the magazine, it probably is — it’s better not to waste your time or the editor’s.]

10. Tenth Submission: July 25, 2003

The story came back unread with a note that the magazine was on hiatus until sometime in 2004.

11. Eleventh Submission: September 26, 2003

Came back quickly and unread: too short for the anthology I’d submitted it to. [Take another lesson from this: do your homework and follow the rules. Again, I wasted my postage, my time, and an editor’s time.]

12. Twelfth Submission: October 10, 2003

Came back with a photocopied form rejection, no note, no signature.

13. Thirteenth Submission: January 29, 2004

The rejection came on March 29, 2004 with handwritten notes from three different editors:

A. “I really liked this story. The realism of the prisoner with no name, his thoughts so different than ours, his complete lack of recognition of what was happening. Your heart attack description was powerful, along with the unnamed prisoner’s complete ignorance of what a chair was or what another person’s arms would really feel like. The commander’s understanding and much too late compassion also moved me.”

B. “The opening was quite catchy. I think you started the story at the perfect place. I was disappointed when you switched to the “He who had no name” part. I had a very difficult time understanding the two stories. I couldn’t quite figure out how they were related. I needed more of a clue to the two parts. The conflict and resolution of the plot was really fuzzy to me.”

C. “This story had some great imagery. The scene where the prisoner escaped was great stuff. All the story really needs is a better plot line. At first I thought it was about the jailer and whether he’d be punished, then the plot suddenly turned to the prisoner and left me hanging. Why is the commander asking who killed the man when it’s obvious a breeze could’ve? Why does the commander suddenly turn to pity? Why is the jailer so afraid of him? What’s his reputation? Other than this your story really was quite good.” [Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee! I know that editor was trying to be kind and helpful with that last line, but isn’t it hilarious, in context? “Other than everything about it, your story is quite good!” — Thanks, I’m so happy to hear that!]

At this point I finally got the picture through my thick skull and did some serious revision of the piece.

14. Fourteenth Submission: April 12, 2004

The rejection came on May 6, 2004: form rejection to “Dear Contributor” saying that it wasn’t quite right for them, and that due to the overwhelming number of submissions they were receiving, the magazine was closing to unsolicited materials.

[Clarification here: “no unsolicited materials” doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance with that market or that you need an agent. It just means they don’t want you to send them a story they haven’t asked for. You can send them a query (formatted and worded properly, based on your study of their published guidelines). If they write back and say, “Yes, we want to read the story,” then you are sending them a “solicited” submission.]

15. Fifteenth Submission: August 12, 2004

Form rejection came back (postmark illegible): two boxes checked — the story lacked sufficient elements of the dark fantastic, surreal, bizarre, or strange, and the plot offered nothing new or interesting.

16. Sixteenth Submission: September 1, 2004

Undated form rejection came back apologizing for being a form letter and wishing me good luck.

17. Seventeenth Submission: September 18, 2004

Never heard a peep back from that editor . . . and by this point, I was tired of sending follow-ups for this story. I had pretty much come to the realization that other people didn’t like the idea as well as I did. And that’s also a lesson we need to learn, at some point, as writers. Not all our ideas are brilliant. Some, no matter how much we love them, may never really “work” for most other people. (I do think such cases, though, are the exception rather than the rule. Usually a story can be made reader-friendly with the right repairs.)

Don’t misunderstand the moral of this posting: I’m not advocating blind stubbornness. As a more mature writer than I was in 2000, I now know that I want my stories to appeal to most people who read them. You’re never going to please everybody, but if three or four knowledgeable readers have serious reservations — or if they think the story is, well, okay, but they’re clearly not wowed — then I believe it’s time to rethink and rewrite. So in a way, this little chronicle is a mini-course in What Not to Do. Don’t send one tired story around and around and around. That doesn’t mean get discouraged and hide the story in the bottom drawer. It doesn’t mean throw the story away. It means be open to suggestions. It means get feedback; rework the story until people are liking it . . . a lot.

“Under the Tower of Valk” was finally published in Ozment’s House of Twilight, Issue 7, Winter 2007. I know it was published chiefly because the editor is a friend of mine, which gained the story a kind, sympathetic reading. BUT it wasn’t a “mercy publication.” The editor has integrity, and he wouldn’t have published the piece if he hadn’t believed in it. And yes, before it went into print, I revised the story — very heavily.

This has been an extreme example. Most stories don’t get rejected this much, because one of three things usually happens: 1.) They’re good enough that they get accepted right away. 2.) The writers give up and stop submitting them, which is the saddest possibility. Or, 3.) The writers learn from the rejections they’re getting, revise accordingly, and the stories get accepted.

How do my books compare? I think The Threshold of Twilight had about as many rejections as “Under the Tower of Valk” did. I finally decided to stop working on it, since I knew it wasn’t publishable in its present state, and I was no longer the high-school and college student I’d been when I was writing it; there was nothing further I could do to make it publishable without writing an entirely new book — so I turned to writing entirely new books. Dragonfly had also garnered some 12-13 rejections, I think, before it hit the right editor at the right time.

So, the last words: Be open and willing to revise. And don’t give up!

Line-edits are going well here: I’m 75% of the way through the book!

A World of Shadows

November 18, 2008

“He watched the moon sink toward the sharp treetops. Its radiance, and every sound of the night — the sighing wind, the songs of insects, the yowling things that had no identity — all these were the same, yet somehow different. He’d learned that nightmares had doors and windows that were not always shut in the daytime.

“That knowledge changed the way light fell on the land. It made the world dimmer, more shadowy, and infinitely wider.”

from “Shadowbender,” by Yours Truly (Watch for this story in Issue #8 of Ozment’s House of Twilight — see the blogroll at the right for the URL.)

“As mankind understands more and more about the world, the number of ‘monsters’ becomes smaller and smaller. . . . In a way, mankind has lost something important.”

–Isaac Asimov

It would have been a lot scarier to have lived in the pre-industrial age, before the advent of the electric light. Think about it: no streetlights, no houselights, no flickering TVs behind the living-room windows of houses on your block. No neon. No jumping into the safe cubicle of your car and flicking on the headlights. The night beyond your hearth, beyond your candle, was a well of blackness. Who knew what lurked out there, where the bandogs howled?

Ten or more years ago, I read an article by a scholar named Roger Ekirch, who seemed to be making something of a career of researching the pre-industrial night. There’s far more to the subject than you’d expect: the lack of abundant artificial light gave rise to significantly different patterns of thought and ways of spending the dark hours. (Have you heard of “the first sleep” and “the second sleep”? If you’d lived back then, you would have.) The article promised a forthcoming book, but I’ve never been able to find it. If anyone knows of such a book, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, to my point: monsters and shadows. (That’s generally always my point, if you look hard enough. Heh, heh!) Even in our sanitized, well-lighted world, the shadows are there, always pooling, always ready to come creeping back; and we writers of horror and speculative fiction are usually looking out for them with hopeful gazes. So I’ve got three stories for you — three stories from the edges of the dusk — three sort-of near wishful encounters with monsters.

1. Just tonight (hence, the inspiration for this posting), I was walking back to my place from the home of nearby friends at a little past midnight. It’s a November night in northern Japan — rain sluicing down at times in the cruel wind, everything shiny and wet. I timed my short journey to shoot home between squalls. As I passed the mouth of the Lavender Path (a long pathway like an alley where cars can’t pass — a place for walkers and cyclists between the backs of buildings and a little park on the right, lined on both sides by bushes and flowers in season — and yes, lots of lavender), I saw, about 20 or so feet away from me, something.

The thing was so incongruous that it stopped me in my tracks. I actually backed up a few steps to peer down the pathway and squint into the dark. “What is that?” I wondered. It was so black that I thought at first it was just a shadow; there were no details visible. But it was out in the middle of the path, where no shadows of anything else fell. And the more I stared, the more I was sure it was some substantial, upright object.

The mouth of the Lavender Path, with my bike at about the point at which I saw the "thing."

The mouth of the Lavender Path, with my bike at about the point at which I saw the

It was about the size of a large dog, but the oddest thing was that I had the impression of kangaroo-like feet or legs. That is, the oval-shaped, featureless bulk of the thing seemed raised at an angle, supported by a base of some kind that my imagination could easily construe as dog-like feet. I watched for perhaps 15 or 20 seconds, but the shape didn’t move at all. I’m fairly sure it was some mundane object blown out into the path by the fierce winds. But then again, it was about the right size and posture for a chupacabras, so I was not inclined to set foot on the Lavender Path (which I frequent in the daytime) for a closer view. I’ll try to remember tomorrow to glance that way as I pass, and we’ll see if the cloud-masked sun can shed any light on the mystery.

2. Not long after seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, a friend and I were walking to the local cineplex to see a late-night movie. The road we were taking had houses and buildings on one side and rice fields on the other. Ahead of us in the darkness, just at the edge of the rice fields, hunched a thing that looked for all the world like one of the cloaked creatures in The Village. We both had exactly the same impression: a vaguely humanoid shape stooping far forward, covered by a long cloak and a hood.

Of course, being adults and men (yeah, my friend was a guy — boring story, I know), we couldn’t allow ourselves to be too scared, but I’m pretty sure our steps slowed a little as we commented on it. We had to walk right past it (left past it) to get to the theater, so we did. It turned out to be black plastic draped over some rice-field-related implement, but even at quite close range, it looked like a hooded creature.

3. This one is in broad daylight. After some torrential rains a few years ago, I was crossing a bridge called Honsen Oohashi at the point where the Sekiya Canal branches off from the Shinano, Japan’s longest river. As I glanced down into the turbulent gray water, I saw what looked like a shiny, black, serpentine body rising up in an arch that just cleared the surface. It plunged back under, then re-emerged . . . then sank again, then reappeared . . . undulating, swimming in the central channel toward the sea. The thing was about 8 or 10 inches in diameter, at least. If I’d been looking down into Loch Ness, I would have been excited, let me tell you!

As I watched, though, I figured out what I was seeing. Either a car tire or the inner tube of a tire was floating on end (that is, upright, as if rolling), “bouncing” away down the river, now half into the air, now underwater. Shiny . . . black . . . the perfect sea monster! (As my old college friend Julie F. later said, “That’s an illustration of how a person sees what he wants to see.” Well, yeah. The Cervantes character in The Man of La Mancha says, “Poets select from reality.” I’d add that speculative fiction writers select, then reach out and give their selections a good, hearty twist.)

And you thought Hallowe’en was over!

So, my call to you, dear readers, is this: Does anyone have a similar story? Have you seen anything that might, in the pre-industrial night, have been a card-carrying monster? Let us hear of your shadowy walks and hair-raising glimpses. And if anyone has a bona fide monster story, well, you betcherboots that’s welcome, too!

I’d tell you about our monster-hunting club in gradeschool, but that’s a whole ‘n’other post!

Note to all: If you enjoy this sort of talk, be sure to read the comments on this post (below). People are writing in with some fascinating stories! Why don’t you be one of them?

Unveiling, and Some Introductions

May 16, 2008

What’s that I just handed you? It’s a virtual cigar! (Well, my avatar just handed it to your avatar. Trust me. I saw them talking under the virtual streetlamp up the block.) Why am I handing out virtual cigars? Why, to announce the birth of my all-new website! You are the first to know about it! It’s so new, not even the Web crawlers have sniffed it out and slithered back to report it to their master, the Lord of Search Engines. If hit counters are to be believed, you can still be among the first hundred visitors! The URL is:

http://www.fredericsdurbin.com

I appreciate all constructive comments! (I appreciate them almost as much as enthusiastic support!)

Next, I’d like to tell you about three names to look for–three writers to watch. I can name names, because they all have public presences on the Web. In fact, they’re all just a mouse-click away, over there at the right of your screen, in the Blogroll. See them? We’ll go in alphabetical order:

Gabriel Dybing is a scholar just finishing up his Master’s. His passion and expertise lie in the epic sagas of the ancient North. Yes, I mean Vikings. His blog can tell you all about it, but he’s done a tremendous amount of research in this field, and he brings it all to bear when he weaves fiction of the mists and the rocks, the dark fjords, the enchantments and monsters. He tells us of hardy folk who–with sinew, blood, valor, and honor–wrest a living from their mysterious and starkly beautiful world. The great teachers of writing tell us to write what we know. Gabe goes one better: he knows his subjects, certainly–but more, he writes what he is. These tales are of his heritage and in his blood.

Nicholas Ozment has been called a “Mark Twain for our times”–if Mark Twain had had an even darker, more twisted side, and more of a penchant for ghosts and things that snarl in the night. Nick is adept at both long and very, very short forms, and his material ranges from science-fiction to horror to fantasy to poetry to humor to dramatic scripts to podcasts [pause for deep breath] . . . to pop-culture reviews to scholarly essays to literary fiction. . . . In short, he writes pretty much everything, and writes it well. He has been widely published in both print and on-line venues. He’s a college professor and, oh yes, also the editor of the magazine Ozment’s House of Twilight.

Michael Tresca knows the world of role-playing games (both on- and off-line) like no one I’ve ever met. He is the prolific author of gaming materials, articles, and reviews. His fiction includes fantasy, horror, and humor. Moreover, he delivers nail-biting suspense in a genre that blends technology, Lovecraftian horror, politics, and conspiracy theory.

Yes, I have the honor of calling these three guys friends, but I’d be reading them regardless. Watch for their names. I predict that you’ll be seeing a lot more of them, and I don’t mean in my blog.